Barkley Fall Classic: An Odyssey of Endurance

The relentless hum of curiosity and a thirst for adventure led me to the footsteps of the infamous Barkley Marathons, often whispered about in the hallowed corners of the ultra community. With each documentary I’ve watched and every video I’ve seen, the figures dancing over those vicious terrains became emblematic of human grit. There have been only fewer than 20 runners that have completed the Barkley Marathon.  The sadistic (in a playful sense) race director, Laz, with his mischievously crafted Barkley Marathons in the heart of Frozen Head State Park, became a siren call. No ordinary race this, but a gauntlet thrown at one’s very being. This is a race that tests the human limits showcasing endurance running in its rawest form.  But this is NOT the race that I did, this is beyond my limits, skills, and capabilities.

It was during a memorable trek at the Rocky 100 when Nancy, a Texas trail local legend, spoke of her own exploits in the “Baby Barkley.” The Barkley Fall Classic (BFC) is a 50K little brother of the beast called The Barkley Marathon. This wasn’t the first I’d heard of it; Sommer, my friend from California, had once mentioned it too. The universe seemed to be pointing me in a direction.

Despite initial hesitations, fate thrust this ticket into my hands: an invitation to the BFC, just six weeks away. I could’ve declined, waited another year, trained more, but the heart wants what it wants.  It really wants torture.

Training and Preparation: My foundation was already in place, but mountains? Those were sorely missing in Central Texas. The relentless Texan sun beat down as I found my rhythm, treading over road and trail alike. Nutrition became key. My training menu? Liquid calories in the form of Tailwind, supplemented by spring energy, picky bars, and BASE active recovery and red pills.

The Final Countdown: The days before the race were a whirlwind. Flight to Atlanta, a brief work stint, and then the open road to Wartburg with a pit stop in Chattanooga for food. The eve of the race was filled with scouting missions, aided by my spirited friend, Sommer. Maps sprawled out, we made our best calculations, as we ate some grub at the distillery by the old prison.

D-Day: Dawn brought with it a flurry of emotions. Sleep had been evasive, nerves buzzing like live wire. Yet, with every stride towards the starting line, determination surged. Laz’s famed cigarette lit and we were off!

The trail seemed to have a life of its own, segmented into color-coded challenges. Purple section – starting conservatively, I met a multitude of souls, each on their unique journey. The ascents were where I found my calling, overtaking many, only to surrender my lead on the downhills – this was mostly on the yellow section.  At one point, I encountered a swarm of yellow jackets—were they bees or hornets? Regardless of the culprit, I got stung. I stopped to apply some bee sting wipes to alleviate the itch.

The white segment, the crux of the race, introduced me to the solitary wilds of Chimney Top. Here, amid fog and rain, I was reintroduced to Brian, a park regular, as we navigated ‘Laz miles’ and frigid conditions.

Tub Spring’s aid station felt like a relief, seeing people at the top of the mountain. Yet the toughest was yet to come: the notorious Rat Jaw. Every joyous slide down the treacherous slope was matched with thorned barriers. Teaming up with Jessica, a lady I met and caught up with going down Rat Jaw, we battled our way down, laughing and lamenting in tandem.

Our ordeal culminated at the now-defunct prison, where the looming DNF awaited. Yet, there was no hint of regret, only an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and camaraderie.  We waited at the bottom, and I was also glad to see Sommer finish her marathon distance.

Reflection: The Barkley Fall Classic wasn’t just a race; it was an education. A testament to human potential and a lesson in humility. Each bruise, every torn clothing, every ‘rat bite’ or cuts from the briars, they’re all badges of honor. As I look back, I realize that races like these aren’t about how fast you go, but how much you grow.

For next time: (Wait, there is a next time?  Yes, I will try until I get a finish – even if a marathon finish)

Training needs to involve more of the following:

  • Hill repeats (more than what I have done)
  • Speed training (I will need to run the flats)
  • Strength, core, and weights training (I did some, but could use more)

Heat training worked, the altitude didn’t bother me, but it affected the other Texan runner I met (from East Texas).

Nutrition is key – this worked out well for me, as I properly planned my nutrition, carrying all that I need, since aid stations are sparse.

People will think 13 hours and 20 minutes is plenty of time to finish a 50k – it is not.  Do not underestimate this course.  Is it 50k?  Or is it 50 miles…. We just don’t know…

By the numbers:

Pictures: (will upload shortly)